Too Big To Fail?: 'Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years'

At 75 years, both Superman and the print collection that celebrates his anniversary, suggest the idea of perpetual fictions as public good.

Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years

Publisher: DC
Length: 400 pages
Writer: Robin Wildman (ed.)
Price: $39.99
Publication Date: 2013-11

It's not at all shocking to note the similarities between Grant Morrison and Rags Morales's Action #1 (post the New 52 reboot of 2011) and the original 1938 Action #1, which first introduced the dualistic hero of Superman/Clark Kent. What is shocking, and remains shocking even now, some two years after the rebooted Action has become well-worn, is the key differences between the two debut issues.

In the 2011 reboot, Superman isn't yet in his full costume, he's in that faux-Midwest values signal of blue jeans and a House of El tee. Superman and Lois don't interact as intimately as they did in the 1938 original. And perhaps most importantly, Superman doesn't rely on preexisting social institutions, like the Governor making a last-second call to the State Pen.

One way of understanding Morrison's choices are to read them politically, to say that Morrison must have been tapping into the same zeitgeist that ostensibly fueled the Arab Spring, the London Street riots, and just at the time of Action #1's publication, Occupy Wall Street. Another way of framing Morrison's choices is to suggest a psychosocial reading, that over time, social norms have adapted in response to certain key historical events. But maybe a third reading, unexpectedly, is an economic one. That over the course of time, a vast quantity of a certain commodity has been built up. The commodity in question? Superman himself.

Or at least, creative visions of Superman, unique subgenre of the superhero. Between the Julie Schwarz and the Alan Moore and the Curt Swan and the Elliot S! Maggin and the John Byrne visions of Superman, could Morrison have made the creative choices he did as much to confront Superman's publication history, as to tease out individual story elements he would later marry together?

Strictly speaking, dealing with the plethora of creative visions of the Man of Steel is an economic question. Not a crass one in terms of how much Superman the market can tolerate at any one moment. But the deeper, more inherently economic question of complexity, of where suddenly, did all of these creative visions of Superman come from? It is the same economic question that Eric Beinhocker wrestles with in his book The Origin of Wealth, written as the first indicators of the financial crisis became apparent. Beinhocker argued for the economy being a complex adaptive system, one that has seen an exponential, and quite unforeseeable production of wealth since the Industrial Revolution.

Robin Wildman, Editor of A Celebration of 75 Years, makes the notable choice of observing strict chronological sequence when presenting the various Superman stories collected in this anniversary edition. The choice to approach Superman chronologically mirrors Morrison's own creative choices to revisit but also disentangle narrative elements that have been woven together. And in many ways a chronological sequencing also begins to deal with issues of the explosion of creative visions, the apparent but unforeseeable "wealth" of Superman produced over the course of the 75 years of publication history.

Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years really distinguishes itself from other themed collections in that it approaches Superman more as historical artifact than simply a collection answering to a certain theme. The collection is deeply reminiscent of the kind of ambition for Les Daniels for his historiographic work--a kind of assay of just the right comicbook issues featuring a particular superhero, that would essentially parlay into a historical assessment.

There's a clear schism that emerges in Wildman's narrative curation of Superman, just around the book's midpoint at the end of Part II. This is no fault of Wildman's rather, the schism appears contemporaneous with the landmark conclusion of the "Kryptonite Nevermore" storyarc by writer Denny O'Neil and artist Neal Adams. "Kryptonite Nevermore" ushered in a new kind of thinking around Superman and around comics storytelling itself. What if, nearly 40 years on from the first instance of superhero comicbook, the superhero genre itself could be evolved from its serialized storytelling origins? O'Neil and Adams's thinking was revolutionary at the time and became the basis for the more mature comics storytelling of today.

In A Celebration of 75 Years, Wildman's decision to not simply reprint the 300-plus page storyline of "Kryptonite Nevermore" and instead focus on its effects essentially ups the anniversary collection to the Les Daniels-esque level of issues-as-historiography. The radical effects of the O'Neil-Adams storyline can readily be seen in Parts III, IV and V of A Celebration of 75 Years. The explosion of different versions, different creative visions of Superman post-"Kryptonite Nevermore" becomes more than apparent in the concluding half of the anniversary collection. And it stands in stark contrast to the earlier, homogenized, serial-adventure storytelling style of the first half.

Ultimately, Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years escapes the quagmire of being nothing more than simply a showcase of the character. There is a deep, meditative approach to the character and his history, something akin to stewardship. And yet, nothing about this grander cultural project is prohibitive when it comes to just enjoying the passage of Superman through the years.

And, in the final analysis, even that isn't the true magic of Superman: A Celebration of 75 Years. The true magic lies in the invention and the continuation of a character that will make you believe a man can fly.

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